Note that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s refusal to honor a subpoena for President Trump’s tax returns by a U.S. House committee is exactly the kind of official stonewalling a 1924 law was purposely enacted to neutralize.
Under Title 26 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, Section 6103, referencing “Disclosure to Committees of Congress, Committee on Ways and Means, and Joint Committee on Taxation,” the law states:
“Upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Committee on Finance of the Senate, or the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Secretary shall furnish such committee with any return, or return information specified in such request …” (emphasis mine)
So, the law appears clear that Mnuchin is compelled — the law’s language specifies no wiggle room for resistance — to release six years of the president’s tax returns that have been subpoenaed in April by Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee.
Rep. Neal contends that Congress “has a duty to conduct oversight of departments and officials,” and in this case, that duty involves evaluating the IRS policy to audit all presidents’ tax returns.
President Trump has claimed he has not released his tax returns, as all U.S. presidential candidates have done in modern American history, because he says he is “under audit.” However, he has produced no proof that he is actually being audited, and experts say, nonetheless, that doesn’t preclude him from releasing previous years’ returns.
It would therefore seem that the administration has arbitrarily decided to block the subpoenaed request regardless of its legality, as a political strategy to slow-walk any constitutionally mandated congressional oversight aiming to hold the president and his administration accountable for their actions. The end game is to keep the legal resistance going until after the 2020 election, improving chances of Trump’s re-election.
Yet, with his refusal to comply with the subpoena, Mnuchin is unequivocally violating the letter of the law.
The law’s genesisThe move by Mnuchin evokes the ghosts of America’s political past. The law was passed by Congress in 1924 specifically to prevent U.S. administration officials from hiding their personal financial information from congressional oversight.
The genesis of the law was a tax feud that became linked to the Teapot Dome Scandal, a bribery episode starting in 1921 in which President Warren G. Harding’s interior secretary gave a political friend sweetheart access to oil leases without competitive bidding, according to a Washington Post article.
A catfight between millionaires precipitated passage of the law: then-Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, a financier and (as Mnuchin) a former Goldman Sachs executive, and Republican Sen. James Couzens of Michigan. Mellon, who fiercely opposed Sen. Couzens investigation of the I.R.S., used his capacity as Treasury chief to sneak a peek at Couzens’ tax returns and to publicly leak politically disruptive information about his wealth. Because tax returns were then fully private, Couzens protested, but Mellon was able to keep his tax returns private.
Couzens inquiry and others, which Mellon tried to disrupt, concerned “how to control the powerful — how to erect a firewall between their financial interests and the work of governing the country,” according to the Post article.
And the important necessity of monitoring and controlling illegal actions by uber-wealthy and powerful government officials remains today.
The online news site Vox published responses by 11 legal issues to these questions:
“So where does this leave us? Does Congress actually have the right to demand Trump’s tax returns? And now that the Treasury Department has refused to hand them over, what happens next?”
On balance, though, the answers don’t seem to be a close call, as more than 500 former federal prosecutors opined regarding whether President Trump’s obstruction-of-justice allegations were indictable as presented in special counsel Robert Mueller’s recently released report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In a publicly released and signed letter, the ex-prosecutors said the evidence was “overwhelming” that the president would have been indicted if he were anything but president.